Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was one of the great masters of the art of printmaking. His large copperplate etchings of the architectural splendors of Rome made him famous in his own time, and they have continued to influence writers, artists, and architects to this day.
A number of those famous etchings originally appeared in Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de’ Romani [On the Magnificence and the Architecture of the Romans]. Published in 1761, the book was Piranesi’s contribution to one of the great artistic debates of the day—whether ancient Greek art and architecture was superior to that of Rome. (If the title didn’t give it away, he sided heavily with the Romans.)
Piranesi’s books and prints were bought and studied by architects and artists throughout Europe. One of those early elephant folio-sized volumes found its way to the collections of Lilly Library on Duke’s East Campus, where it has been held in the locked stacks of the building’s basement since the 1940s, when librarians estimate it was acquired.
Recently, a Piranesi expert visiting Duke noticed something unusual about this particular copy of Della Magnificenza. Heather Hyde Minor is an associate professor of the history of architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. She is also a 2013-2014 fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park. Her new book, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Lost Words, will be published in 2015 by Pennsylvania State University Press.
At the front of the volume, Professor Minor noticed “a large, carefully executed drawing” she had never seen before. The drawing resembles a cartouche, a classical architectural window or tablet designed to contain an inscription. It was perhaps intended as a kind of bookplate or souvenir—a way of personalizing a book at a time when books were costly and highly personal. But for whatever reason, the inscription area was left blank.
“I have looked at many Piranesi volumes in the U.S. and in Europe,” Minor said. “I have never seen a drawing bound in to one.” The style of the drawing led Minor to believe that it was not executed by Piranesi himself, but possibly by one of his children or a member of his workshop. “This makes your book particularly exciting,” said Minor in a written evaluation of the volume she provided to the Libraries.
The Lilly copy of Della Magnificenza is bound together with a copy of Piranesi’s Osservazioni di Gio. Battista Piranesi sopra la letter de M. Mariette (Rome, 1765), another installment in the Greco-Roman debate in which Piranesi argues against claims by the French critic Mariette that Roman artists were inspired by their Greek forerunners. Watermarks date the publication of the two books to sometime between the 1770s and the 1790s.
The Piranesi volume was recently moved to Duke’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where it will continue to inspire scholarly conversation and debate, just as it did some two hundred and fifty years ago.